In Memory of WTOC’s Craig Harney

Received word by phone this afternoon (12-1-19) from his oldest daughter, Maggie, that her dad, Craig Harney, had passed away last night (11-30-19).  It was one of those phone calls that we all get in life, but wish we didn’t have to.

Craig had been dealing with internal organ cancer, to one degree or another, for at least the last two years.  He was a very private person, ever hesitant to talk about his illness, so perhaps he had been dealing with it even longer.  My hunch is that his reluctance to talk about it, with friends and other work colleagues, was to keep us from worrying or feeling badly about him.  He was always far more concerned about the feelings of others, than he was about himself.  And that was just one of a slew of personal traits that made Craig so special to so many.

Craig had undergone several rounds of chemo, and even radiation, along with some surgery performed by an expert physician in Atlanta, a man whom Craig grew to really trust and admire.  But after all of those months of treatment, both in Savannah and Atlanta, his doctors indicated that they had no more medical magic, no more medicine or treatments they could administer.  He was essentially on his own, with the suggestion that he engage hospice care, in addition to his primary caregiver, his wonderful wife of so many years, Suzanne.  It was probably three months, perhaps less, from the time that treatment options had run out, to the time of his passing last evening.

Over the years since my retirement from WTOC-TV, every so many weeks, Craig and I would meet at a mid-town McDonald’s for a “nutritious” Saturday morning brunch.  I always paid because I wanted to, as he had always been such an outstanding colleague, and friend (I considered him to be a dear friend, through all those years that we had worked together (29), and beyond into my retirement).  In fact, McDonald’s became Craig’s idea.  We had originally been going to an actual breakfast place, but he grew concerned about how much it was costing me! Typically, caring, Craig.  So McD’s became our eatery location of choice for those Saturday morning get-togethers.

Our last brunch meeting, as it turned out, was about three weeks ago.  Suzanne drove him to the restaurant.  She helped him to carefully exit their vehicle.  He had a cane to help steady himself.  We walked slowly to the restaurant door, and I ordered for us, after getting him seated.  Suzanne drove off to do errands, to include, quietly, getting him more morphine, for use to ease the pain that he now had developed from within.  He was thinner and weaker looking, than I had remembered from our previous get-together, but we had a very good conversation, as we always did, talking about his condition (always limited!), his work at the station, whether he’d go on long-term disability or perhaps transition to part-time (he was only able to do a couple of hours there each morning, before his strength waned), and we talked about other likely meaningless stuff.  I gave him a new book (or two) as I always did (it was part of our get-together ritual!).  He ate very little of his burrito and only a sip of orange juice.  Much more and he’d get nauseous, he told me.  Suzanne returned in about an hour.  She helped him out of the restaurant, as I had coming in.  She gently got him seated in their car.  I told him I’d see him soon.  Sadly, soon would never come.  I knew he was ill, but I never thought his end on earth would arrive so soon.

When daughter Maggie called me this afternoon, I had a bad feeling before she spoke.  When she delivered the news about her dad, I was stunned.  Sadness overwhelmed me.  No tears.  Just instant deep, deep sorrow.  I had invited him for brunch at McD’s a couple of days before, as always via email.  He responded that he’d have to let me know.  The next day, as I kind of expected because it wasn’t the first time during his illness, Craig begged off, asking for a “burrito rain-check,” because his sister was coming on that Saturday.  Oh, how I wish he’d been available, and feeling well enough for our brunch together.  That  always enjoyable tradition has now ended.  I shall miss it, and being with him.

As mentioned earlier, Craig and I had worked together at WTOC for 29-years.  For most of that time, I was fortunate to be the VP/General Manager of that great, traditionally, marketing-leading television station.  Craig held a number of positions through those years. When we first met, he was directing the 6 PM and 11 PM thirty-minute local newscasts (Doug Weathers-Pat Prokop-Rick Snow were the anchor team in 1985).  I’ll always remember that his wife, Suzanne, would bring him dinner each week-night after the 6 PM newscast.  That was a gift of wifely love, as there were no restaurants in the vicinity.  It also gave them some catch-up time together, since working the night shift meant that Craig wouldn’t get home until midnight, or later.

Through the succeeding years, Craig served in a succession of positions, as the station’s marketing director, director of special projects (meaning local on-air special programming), and he was most currently appointed director of commercial production ( in addition to the local live and taped specials he continued to do in great number).

Craig was a gifted writer and producer.  He was what we used to call, primarily in journalism, a “one-man-band.”  He was able to conceive and plan documentaries (and also remote location productions), then “shoot” (i.e., video tape), write the script, edit the tape to that script, and very often do his own “voice-over” narration work to complete the tape project.  Today, that could take up to four people to complete such. Craig had the unique ability to do it all himself, and turn-in for air, a finished program.  Among other accomplishments, he single-handedly produced over 30 video tribute vignettes for the Savannah Junior Achievement Community Leader Hall of Fame, creating a panorama over the years of some of Savannah’s most significant business leaders, a great legacy of achievement, both for the featured individuals and for Craig.

He also produced program specials overseas, most prominently a travelogue in Ireland (with principal anchor Sonny Dixon), and a visit to the Vatican in Rome (with his daughter and a delegation from the Savannah Cathedral).  And many specials were done locally by Craig, with legendary WTOC news anchor, Doug Weathers, as host.  Also notably, although known to no one outside the station, in order to save on remote location production costs, Craig (as coordinator/director) was able to do live location telecasts of numerous area Saturday morning festival parades with a crew of only 4-5 staff members. Of course, that required a crew of the very best people on the station’s production staff, but no other station would be able to achieve live (90-minute typically), on-location special programming with such a limited crew.  Craig did it to save the station money.  And he did it because he was just that caring, devoted, and good.

He and I were able to do three separate video visits to US. Navy aircraft carriers out at sea, east of Norfolk, VA.  We flew out to the “boat”on a Navy “COD” (carrier on-board delivery), “trap landed” on the deck (catching one of the heavy braking cables stretched across the rear of the deck), and then headed below deck for orientation.  Former WTOC anchor, Jim Carswell, was the talent on one of those trips.  He was stuck with clearly substandard “talent” on the other trips (me!). We’d generally be there at least one full day for ship-board interviews and capturing activities on the deck (take-offs and landings).  One trip, Craig and I were stationed at the rear of the arrival deck with the pilots who help guide the incoming jets with “paddles” (signaling that the approach was too high or two low, etc.).  Had there been a dangerous issue with an arrival, a whole bunch of Navy guys, then Craig and I, would have had to jump over-the-side into a large net, or we’d end up several stories down in the Atlantic!  The later, not the desired outcome. Fortunately, that net exit was never needed, thanks to the incredible skill of those Navy pilots, as they executed landings at sea on a carrier deck the size of a “postage stamp,” from the pilots’ vantage point, maneuvering for their landing, day or night!  Later, we’d again board he COD. In that gutty, propeller-powered aircraft, you sit facing the rear of the plane (better to absorb the jolt of landing and take off).  I had done this take-off and landing previously with a Savannah community group. So, with Craig, the first time we were powerfully launched off the carrier, I had neglected to mention to him that once the aircraft cleared the deck at the front of the ship, the plane would dip some, although safely flying.  At the moment of the dip, Craig was convinced we were dropping into the ocean!  My bad.

He and I made one other trip together to gather video for a later special.  We went along with several area WW II, Korean War, and Vietnam War veterans, for their “Honor Flight” trip to their respective commemorative war monuments in Washington, D.C.   While it’s called “Honor Flight,” our group actually rode the train, overnight, all the way to D.C., as the plane was very expensive, and more difficult for the many veterans who then used walkers or wheelchairs.  Neither he nor I would ever forget that train ride, all the way up and back, and tour, within 24+ hours.  Sleep was made optional, mainly because the seats only reclined so far, and mostly because the train blew its whistle at every road crossing along the way.  Every one!  But Craig got good video and interviews with these great veterans which, ultimately, made it all worthwhile.

Craig cared about others feelings and achievements, more than he did his own.  He was selfless.  He wanted those around him to succeed.  He was a fine mentor, bringing new or less experienced staff members along, whether in the filed or in the studio.  He just genuinely cared.  And his finished programs were always excellent, especially those he painstakingly edited from his own video.  He was the consummate story-teller, which was brought to life with every, and I mean every, Junior Achievement vignette, (often 8-minutes+ each), or on-air special he produced.  And he never desired, nor took, credit for those superb efforts.  He wanted the subjects of those achievement stories to receive the recognition and praise.  He was without question the most humble and unassuming person on that station staff, even though he was, without question, duly recognized by others, as a creative giant among peers.  As such, in addition to local praise, Craig won several state-wide awards for his video work.

Craig rarely had a bad day, or at least rarely showed it.  He was always personable, friendly, and kind, constantly exhibiting a great sense of humor, as well.  Seasoned staff members there respected him greatly, and really liked him, if not, truly loved him.  He was the hardest worker I’ve known. I’d often find him there at the station working on projects on the week-end.  It was not unusual for him to work five full days (meaning easily 8-hours plus each), and then parts of Saturday and/or Sunday.  Yet, somehow, he found the time to be a devoted husband and dad, very often scheduling specific time and activities with his girls, Maggie & Annie.  Don’t know how he managed to fit it all in, work and home, but he did so, unfailingly.  Whether work or home, commitment really meant something to Craig.

He was a proud graduate of Armstrong State College/University here in Savannah.  He majored in political science, and had the uncanny ability, many years later, to discuss the specifics of major Supreme Court cases, while I was sometimes challenged to recall what day it was!  Craig was a very bright man, with a great gift for memory and writing, especially writing. His wording, and his video edits, were continually flawless.

In sum, with so much more that could be written about Craig over our almost three-decades of working side-by-side, I’ll just leave it at this.  Throughout my  40-years+ of working in both commercial television stations, and university teaching, Craig was the most gifted, skilled, productive, hardest working, most dependable, personable, and kind-spirited staff member (and friend) I’ve ever been privileged to work alongside.  Along with his incredible work ethic and dedication to his craft, some of my fondest memories with Craig, were those post-retirement (mine!) Saturday “brunches” at McDonald’s where we met and talked candidly every month or so, depending always on his schedule (location shoots or family plans!).  Those times were always welcome and enjoyable for me, as we discussed his latest projects, and our lives.  I will really, really miss him.

I will never forget Craig and the years of experiences we shared, at the station, on-the-road, and person-to-person.  I won’t forget him, because I never want to.  Craig was one of God’s special angels here on earth.  And, now, he resides with Him.  In life, as the saying goes, every one of us can be replaced.  Craig Harney is the clear exception…..